Enriching research activities in Global Development

Our Small Grants program is designed to provide seed funding for collaborative research, teaching or extension, or support speakers and workshops. Polson Institute grants promote research at the intersection of systemic inequality and social-environmental justice, and focus on the advancement of global development as a critical, innovative and participatory practice.

Current Small Grants

Just socio-environmental futures require moving away from climate solutions that adversely impact rural development and vulnerability. In the context of the global urgency of transforming carbon credits into the most exported commodity from Africa, the objective of this project is to assess the degree to which carbon markets are contributing to socio-environmental (in)justice. Understanding the role of relevant drivers and actors such as financial institutions, international organizations, civil society and the state in restructuring carbon projects’ outcomes and benefit sharing is essential to grasp their ability to effectively meet socioenvironmental goals. Through the experience of rural households in Mozambique, this research will explore how differentiated mechanisms of producing carbon credits shape socioecological configurations of rural subsistence and social reproduction. This proposal refers to intended pre-fieldwork activities in two study sites, including green and blue carbon projects, with the highest carbon credit production potential in the country.

Water scarcity due to climate change is a critical issue affecting millions of people's livelihoods, particularly in rural areas. Decision-makers face challenges as they balance competing interests among agricultural and industrial activities, public services and environmental protection. Collaborative efforts involving multiple stakeholders are underway, but questions linger about how to involve all parties in decision-making processes and deal with unintended consequences. Researchers will focus on understanding how decision-makers navigate these complexities when developing climate adaptation strategies in rural landscapes. They aim to gain insights by mapping and analyzing initiatives and stakeholders involved in addressing climate, water, and food security issues in Mexico. The findings of this research will offer valuable insights to aid decision-makers in crafting inclusive and evidence-based strategies to adapt to climate change toward sustainable food systems.

The Community-Engaged Global Learning in Malawi project will support the inclusion of 10 students from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) to participate in Professor Rachel Bezner Kerr’s Winter 2025 faculty-led study trip to Malawi. Dr. Frank Tchuwa of LUANAR will co-teach the field course with Prof. Bezner Kerr. Together, Cornell and LUANAR students will collaborate with local farmers, communities, and researchers to learn about agroecology in practice, including farmer experimentation, indigenous knowledge, and gender issues in agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. Students will take part in a range of activities, such as agroecological farming, visiting community seed banks and agroecological markets, cooking and tasting during recipe days and meeting with policymakers. This collaboration between Cornell and local students abroad will deepen student learning about engaged community development on key topics related to food security and sustainability and will foster cross-cultural reciprocal exchange in engaged global learning.

Higher education’s extension and community engagement is a practice developed globally. However, the current academic debate and research is concentrated in Global North experiences, conferences, and Journals, most of them in English. The goals of this project are to consolidate two research collaborations on extension and community engagement with two public universities in Uruguay and South Africa and to explore and analyze the implications of a Cornell Global Learning experience in Ecuador. The main tasks include 1) Workshops on Global Dialogue in Uruguay and South Africa; and 2) Historical research and Participant Observation in Ecuador. This project contributes to CALS’s Roadmap to 2050’s strategic action plan on extension and outreach.

The Learner’s Group is conducting a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) workshop in February 2024 for the LeadNY Program, sponsored by the Polson Institute at Cornell and Farm Credit East. The workshop aims to provide participants with valuable insights on DEI concepts and their practical applications in the workplace. The workshop will focus on Moving Beyond Unconscious Bias and Leading for Inclusion and Engagement. Participants will learn about the importance of DEI in their organizations and communities, how to identify and address biases, and how to create an inclusive environment. The workshop will be led by experienced professionals in the field of DEI, who will provide participants with valuable insights and practical tools to help them create more diverse, equitable, and inclusive organizations. In continuous operation for 40 years, LeadNY is a premier leadership development program for adult professionals in the food, agriculture and natural resource sectors of the Northeast.

Eastern African policymakers have largely focused on policies that involve subsidizing seed and fertilizer inputs for short-term crop production gains, ignoring more holistic approaches that can increase smallholder farmers’ crop production, improve their livelihoods, and enhance resilience to droughts and other growing condition shocks. One such approach is integrated soil fertility management (ISFM). In partnership with Development in Gardening (DIG), a Western Kenya based non-governmental organization that conducts ISFM training with farmers, we assess the power of social norms and reminders. We test whether sending weekly SMS (text) message reminders framed around community social norms can increase the salience of soil health to farmers and sustain training interventions over multiple seasons. This project involves collection of soil samples in collaboration with students from Maseno University (Kenya), household surveys developed with DIG, and focus group discussions facilitated by Maseno and DIG to understand how farmers conceptualize soil health.

This project explores the connections of two feminist scholars from different times and regions with a goal to re-imagine decolonized futures of higher education. Contributing to the emergence of epistemologies of the South, we will apply “intercultural translations” to the cases of Amanda Labarca (Chile, 1886-1975) and bell hooks (USA, 1952-2021), who were related to Berea College, a private higher education institution in Kentucky.

This research examines strategies that rural households use to make a livelihood in rural Hungary. It examines how households use social resources to buffer economic distress. The study is being conducted in Hungary, an ex-socialist country that is characterized by dramatic regional and rural-urban inequalities in economic well-being. It examines social and relational strategies households use to buffer the effects of high unemployment, low wage work in dead end jobs, and ineffective social welfare systems that characterize many rural areas in ex- socialist countries.

  • PI: David Brown, Global Development
  • Collaborator – Kodolányi University (Hungary)

The developmental impacts of Chinese multinational companies (CMNCs) in Africa are widely debated. Some people celebrate CMNCs’ contribution to job creation and human capital development in Africa. Others blame CMNCs for their problematic managerial practices. While CMNCs have recruited a sizable number of Chinese to work alongside African employees, there is limited research on cross-cultural management and communication practices between Chinese expatriates and local Africans. Even less attention has been given to the implications for African employees’ skill development and career progression. The goal of this collaborative project is to develop a new interdisciplinary research agenda that synthesizes existing literature on communication and knowledge-sharing dynamics in CMNCs in Africa. Specifically, the project focuses on two levels of analysis: the office-level, cross-location communication, and sharing of best practices among CMNCs’ overseas branches and the interpersonal-level learning and knowledge-sharing between expatriates and local employees. 

The global shea butter market, valued at approximately $3 billion, has yet to significantly impact the shea belt of northern Uganda, where shea trees flourish abundantly. For decades, women in the region have sold raw nuts or employed traditional production methods, denying them the economic advantages of value addition. Consequently, the local community, deprived of benefits from the trees, resorts to cutting them down, making shea trees one of Uganda's most endangered species. The "Optimizing Shea Value" project, comprising an interdisciplinary team from Global Development and Okere City in Uganda, aims to conduct ethnographic research, geo-mapping, and market assessments to foster shea value chain development and regeneration for maximizing social, environmental, and economic benefits. The project focuses on three objectives: (1) geospatial mapping to determine shea tree population in Otuke District and the development of a predictive model for their carbon market potential; (2) evaluating the role of formal and informal institutions in ensuring sustainable environmental governance of shea parklands in Otuke District; and (3) conducting a value-chain analysis for Uganda’s nilotica shea butter.

Previous Small Grants

This project aims to explore agrifood system transitions through enhanced circularity in the Lake Victoria Basin of Kenya. Circular bionutrient economy, here defined as the return of carbon and nutrients from a variety of organic byproduct streams (including human and animal excreta) to agricultural production, offers solutions to a suite of challenges at the crucial nexus of climate, water, soil, and socio-environmental justice. We will build partnerships and synthesize available datasets to examine how, under different policy scenarios and engagement activities, the agrifood system transition can allow us to achieve synergistic outcomes in human and environmental wellbeing.

Global climate change represents perhaps the most salient challenge of the 21st Century. The prospects for progress and equity in the Department of Global Development’s concentrations — social & economic development, agriculture & food systems, and environment & development — will be fundamentally linked to efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Global Development already has a significant and expanding profile of climate change research, teaching and outreach. This project will enable the department to better assess the scope of this work and to increase its relevance from the perspective of the New York State and national Cooperative Extension systems. The project’s national impact and resources will be enhanced by efforts to deepen existing ties of Global Development to the National Extension Climate Initiative, an organization recently founded to mobilize and coordinate the applied research and outreach resources of the US land grant university system in order to more effectively address climate challenges.

This is a project to chronicle John Sipple's experience as one of three “experts” hand-picked by the state to study a “troubled” school district in Rockland County, New York first made famous in 2014 on This American Life. The community is fractured along religious, racial, legal and fiscal lines. A rapidly growing Ultra-Orthodox population in a traditionally integrated upper-middle-class suburb moved through a democratic process to gain control of the local school board in 2006, though not without accusations of substantial voter fraud. While issues of community polarization, demographic change, and democracy are intertwined in complex and challenging ways in this case, there are many parallels to the challenges our nation faces today. This project involves continued coding of data collected in Rockland County with undergraduate research assistants in the Department and brainstorming the various useful and productive conceptualizations that may help guide the writing of a book about that experience.


Food waste is an understudied environmental issue that has only recently gained political traction. In the US, up to 40 percent of the food produced is wasted, and most of this -by some estimates more than 90 percent of it-ends up in landfills, where it takes up space and produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. For both of these reasons, state and municipal solid waste management services are making it a priority to divert organics from landfills. This 1.5-day workshop brought together people working on the problem of food waste from across the country to discuss innovations and ideas that might be tested on college campuses. The event was an opportunity to form a network through which to share information, organize experiments, spark entrepreneurial ventures, and advocate for policy and legislative action on this issue. The event serves as a precursor to the launch of a Cornell-wide Student Challenge to reduce food waste.

The Children Science Center Kenya (CSCK) was launched in 2016 under the direction of Mr. Kenneth Monjero, a research assistant at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) and a member of the IP-CALS Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellows program. The CSCK has expanded quickly since it's inception in 2016 and a now 35 person staff faces team difficulties and collective challenges as a result of rapid change. Dr. Van de Valk will facilitate a teambuilding workshop involving discussions of effective team norms, styles of decision making, conflict management, and communication with the objective of repairing and building team trust and effective work practices.

The Trans-Atlantic Rural Research Network (TARRN) held its annual meeting March 23-25 at Cornell University. TARRN is a network of scholars, both well-known and less experienced, from seven institutions in the US and UK. Member institutions include Penn State, Aberystwyth (Wales), Queens (Northern Ireland), Aberdeen University and The James Hutton Institute (Scotland), Newcastle (England), and Cornell. TARRN was organized in 2006 as a result of a Polson Institute Research Working Group. This year’s three day meeting will be organized around five activities: (1) Discussion of five think pieces identifying and examining emerging and newly important issues for rural research, (2) Informal discussions of new and mid-stream research projects, (3) Panel discussions of “research into policy” examples, (4) meeting with editors of key journals (Sociologia RuralisJournal of Rural Studies, and Rural Sociology), and (5) a field trip to the Erie Canal corridor. 

A wealth of contemporary research - informed by historical and ethnographic approaches - has traced the specific processes of interconnection that have constituted social forms in and beyond Africa. This body of work reminds us that would-be global projects depend upon the particularities of the places in which they take shape, whether these are board rooms in Washington D.C. and Addis Ababa, marketplaces in Touba, or oil platforms in rural Chad. This Polson-funded workshop (April 20th) aims to contribute to this emerging literature, building on Anna Tsing’s (2005) famous use of “friction” to describe how projects become global precisely by connecting specific places, people, and rationale - without resolving their differences. The workshop will bring together early-career scholars who are actively studying global projects in and of Africa using ethnographic, historical, and/or relational approaches to elucidate African agency in the contemporary moment and challenge conventional accounts portraying Africa as disconnected, passive, or marginal.

This research seeks to further develop and evaluate a poverty risk calculator developed through prior research. The project will involve analyzing sample data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) in order to build a series of life tables estimating the adulthood probability of using a social welfare program, experiencing a spell of unemployment, and encountering a composite measure of economic insecurity.  In addition, I propose to assess, along with my research collaborator, whether exposure to the risk calculator changes attitudes towards poverty and inequality. To measure response to the risk calculator we will implement a test/retest design in college and high school classrooms where students will be surveyed using items from a set of previously researched questions about attitudes toward poverty and inequality.  Students will be randomly assigned to treatment and control groups, and the results will be analyzed to determine the type and degree of change, if any. Depending upon the results, changes to the content of the poverty calculator will be implemented. The research results will also be incorporated into a research proposal to the National Science Foundation.

The Food, Agroecology, Justice, and Wellbeing collective is a research group consisting of graduate students, faculty and post-doctoral students from across the university. Our overarching interests are on the intersections and connections between the broad themes of agroecology, food sovereignty/food justice and health/nutrition/well-being. We began as a Research Working Group in 2014 with support from the Polson Institute, and have met numerous times to share work in progress, host speakers, and discuss relevant papers on these themes. The membership of the group has changed over the last 2 years, and we currently consist of approximately 15 members from Nutrition, Development Sociology, Agricultural Economics, Crop and Soil Sciences and Ecology. In April 2017 , a 3-day symposium was held which will brought together external participants (5 international, 15 domestic) as well as Cornell researchers—including junior and senior faculty, postdocs, and graduate students, exploring transformative methodologies for linking agroecological practice, food justice, food sovereignty and improved health and well-being through presentations, discussions and collective writing.

This project was funded to hold a one day workshop on the relationship between land appropriation and forms of identity construction. The workshop explored whether this relationship understood as that between security of private property and recognition as a citizen is meaningful for contexts not tied to institutional ethnic exclusion such as class difference. The purpose of the workshop is to build a more distinct theoretical connection between the robust literature and the multi-faceted processes entailed in land grabs and communities or specific populations marked as targets for appropriation.

  • Collaborator: Shelley Feldman
  • Spring 2015

While the US and UK are both highly urbanized nations, both also have substantial rural populations. The seeming similarities between the rural US and UK mask significant differences. In this project, we place rural UK and US in parallel to identify similarities and differences in a broad range of institutional, socio-demographic, and cultural domains. We examine transformations in areas such as education, poverty and inequality, natural resource management, population aging, and migration as well as policy responses to perceived needs. We examine these areas through a variety of social constructivist and materialistic lenses, and using both quantitative and qualitative methods. We aim to continue graduate student involvement through attendance os the annual TARRN meeting and in paper design and writing. The project is anchored in a well-established research network involving Cornell, Penn State University, and four universities in the UK. This research network is titled the Trans-Atlantic Rural Research Network (TARRN). Over time, this network has published two major books, and guest-edited four special issues of journals including the Journal of Rural Studies, Rural Sociology and Regional Studies.

This initiative is hosting an international conference which examines the potential and challenges of using an agroecological approach to transition to sustainable, equitable and resilient food systems with scholars and practitioners who do agroecological research in a range of countries, including Malawi, France, Colombia, Kenya and Ethiopia. Building on participatory research on agroecological approaches carried out by Dr. Bezner Kerr in Malawi and Tanzania, the extensive research experience of Dr. Alexander Wezel on agroecological approaches in France, and their shared recent experience serving on the United Nations High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) will be brought to bear to focus on the question: The conference will ask: what is the potential for agroecology to address key sustainable development goals, including food security and nutrition and what are the key social, institutional, environmental and political factors that support a transition to agroecology?

Interested in applying?

The Polson Institute offers two grant cycles during the year. For full grant information, submissions processes, and deadlines, please visit our main grant page.